Her finalist year: 1991
Her finalist project: Using computer models to simulate the effects of El Niño
What led to the project: Growing up, Rageshree Ramachandran was no stranger to intense competition. This daughter of math and statistics professors at California State University, Sacramento, won the National Spelling Bee in 1988 when she was 13 by spelling the word elegiacal—which refers to a type of poetic meter—correctly.
In high school, Ramachandran turned her attention to science. She decided to join a summer research program for high school students at the University of California, San Diego, in part because she thought living on campus would be fun. Ramachandran told the directors that she was fascinated by chaos theory—the study of dynamic systems, and how small fluctuations can create big changes in outcomes.
So, working at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, she wound up using data from U.C. San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography to design a computer model to simulate the recurring Pacific Ocean weather phenomenon known as El Niño. She showed how temperature changes in the water could affect wind patterns. She entered her project in the 1991 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and was named a finalist (a distinction also later bestowed on her little sister, Sohini in 1998).
The effect on her career: Though she enjoyed her project, Ramachandran ultimately decided that she was more interested in medicine and medical research than in climate science. She attended Stanford University as an undergrad, and then went to Philadelphia to earn a joint MD–PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied cell and molecular biology. Her thesis was on how genes are turned on and off when muscles regrow in mice.